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Book Review : Literary Fiction
Reviewed by Lisa Guidarini - January 23, 2012
"I have taped the lion photograph back up on the window. If one bears in mind that it was taken in nineteen sixty-four, it says something else about Clarence, different from what I suggested earlier, when I observed how true to life it was, being a picture of him with a drink in his hand. In nineteen sixty-four Hemingway had been dead for years and nobody but Clarence was still shooting lions, and that, I think, was the tragedy of his life, that he was, in a sense, left to shoot lions alone, having made his appearance on stage at the moment they were closing the theater."
- Sam Savage, Glass: A Novel
Losing a spouse after a long-term marriage has to be one of life's toughest experiences, regardless of how happy the relationship may have been. When, as is the case in Glass, a marital situation was fraught with unhappiness and serial infidelity, the challenge of pulling life back together is even harder.
It may sound counter-intuitive, but the death of a close loved one comes with the consolation of having loved, having been a close companion with someone whose love was mutual. But when the partner you've lost made you feel unhappy and inadequate there's the added regret of all the time you can never get back, the time you allowed yourself to be miserable and did nothing about it.
In Glass, Edna and her husband Clarence are writers, traveling the world together, writing and sharing their work. Neither becomes truly famous, but Clarence publishes a moderately well-received novel while Edna spends her time typing away, finishing nothing. For a while things are fine, until Clarence takes a turn, losing respect for his wife, believing his work overshadows her pathetic, aimless efforts.
Taking a mistress he doesn't bother hiding, the three spend much of their time together until the end of his life. Occasionally Clarence and Lily, his lover, take vacations alone, sending postcards back to Edna. It isn't clear how, or why, this situation transpires, nor why Edna chooses to accept it. At the time it's almost as if she's sleepwalking through life, taking everything as it comes, bending to the will of others.
When approached to write the preface for a new edition of Clarence's long out-of-print novel, Edna ultimately awakens. For the first time she allows herself to look back and evaluate her life. She's free to consider her husband and who was behind the carefully built-up persona of some Hemingway-esque, masculine hunter and genius writer, irresistible to women and thus unable to be bound to any one. And the more she thinks the more she realizes how skewed her perceptions really were, how unhappy she was, and how living that life has tainted the person she is, turning her into an anti-social, lonely older woman with little hope much will ever change.
The title Glass is the major theme throughout the book. Glass is breakable. It shatters easily, like first impressions we form of people later proven to be wrong. It's also a barrier, though a transparent one. A face looking through a window is separated from what's outside, gazing at the world while safely in the comfort of one's home. Of course, glass can also be a mirror, reflecting back things we aren't always ready to see.
Savage uses the image of brittle, shielding glass to great effect. Through this one medium he creates Edna, using a fish tank and glass rat's cage to symbolize the world she's built for herself, one in which she's trapped, looking on while other people live. And all along, as she continues typing away in her solitary apartment, the windows become more and more dirty, harder to see through. The energy to clean them, to lean out and really scrub the grime, is beyond her. It's something she considers, then immediately dismisses.
The tone of the book is so sad and, yes, depressing. But like any sad work it tells much human truth. We are, as Edna states at one point, partially products of our childhoods. What we become is one part stamped on us, one part the result of fickle fate. Changing requires energy not everyone has. It also necessitates upheaval, a throwing away of the past. And, though Edna declares time and again she's tossed out all that reminded her of Clarence, so she won't come upon anything unexpectedly, this isn't completely true. There's still the one photo of Clarence, his foot placed triumphantly on the body of a lioness, taped to a window - the grimy window of her apartment, the one it's unlikely she'll ever clean.
Glassis a truly beautiful book. Again, though depressing it's not without it's small bits of humor, nor its open ending, allowing the reader to decide what will become of Edna, if she'll move at all or remain in her stagnant life. As is the case with all Sam Savage's novels the prose is heartrendingly true and pure, sparing yet not without poetic qualities. If there is one American writer living today who should be more appreciated than he is, that writer is Sam Savage. His books cannot fail to move. Technically, stylistically and with a quality of voice that's all his own, he is a true master.
* * * * *
Glass (Coffee House Press, 2011)
$15 Trade Paperback Original
$15 Trade Paperback Original